KANSAS CITY - Somewhere along the way - exactly where they're not sure - the Clemson Tigers misplaced their joy.
Sometime in the past eight weeks, sometime after the losses started coming with alarming frequency, basketball began to feel more like a job than an addiction.
Guys went to practice because they had to. Guys went through the motions in games, somehow ignoring the TV cameras and the thousands of people who paid to watch them play. Guys got bored, started wishing the season would end. Nobody was having very much fun.
This was not healthy. The Tigers knew it was wrong, but they couldn't help themselves. They were locked in a joyless death spiral.
"It shouldn't have been like that, but it happened," said Tony Christie, a sophomore forward. "It was the losing. Losing is never fun."
Rick Barnes tried to stay upbeat, tried not to panic. But finally the third-year Clemson coach got tired of talking to a roomful of zombies.
"I knew," he said before Friday's 68-56 win over Miami of Ohio in the NCAA Tournament's first round. "I looked at the way we were playing basketball and I knew there was just that something little extra that wasn't there. I kept trying to search and find it and I couldn't.
"Finally I told those guys, `You know what? You've got to help me. I know something's not right here. You guys talk it out and decide what it is you think we have to do."'
This was last Friday night, a few hours after Maryland had bounced the Tigers from the ACC Tournament's first round. That night, and again for several hours on Saturday, Barnes and his assistants would do something dangerous.
They left the room. Just walked out and left the players with their thoughts and their doubts, their petty jealousies and their wildest dreams.
Something would fill the vacuum, but what? Venom? An ugly shouting match and finger pointing? A further splintering of the group, already subdivided into three parts?
At the top you had Greg Buckner and Terrell McIntyre, the two leading scorers, the two guys who got almost all the recognition. Then came another four or five players, the ones who actually got on the court every game. Finally, you had the bench warmers, kids who had fallen out of favor or outlived their usefulness and knew it.
A splintering seemed most likely, but that's not what happened. Instead, college kids spoke from the heart and wondered why things couldn't be the way they were earlier this season. Everybody was happy and felt like a part of something special when Clemson got off to that 16-1 start? Why couldn't that feeling be rekindled?
"The meeting was refreshing," Christie said. "We got everything out in the open. We wanted everyone to say what they wanted to say. Let it all out and everyone feel free to talk. Say whatever you want."
A bond was repaired.
A fresh start was achieved.
"That meeting made everyone feel wanted, like we were a team again," Christie said. "You could tell in practice this week that everyone was back together and we were having fun again."
You could tell it again on Friday at Kemper Arena. When Christie scored his eight points and dove headlong for a loose ball, you could tell. When a giddy Harold Jamison manhandled Devin Davis, you could tell. When Christie banked in a free throw - for the second time this season - you could tell.
"You've got to stop doing that," Jamison told Christie, making him laugh. "You're making me nervous."
Nobody would have been all that surprised had Clemson gone home after one round of this tournament, too, but that didn't happen. Georgia lost to Tennessee-Chattanooga and South Carolina lost to Coppin State on Black Friday, but the Tigers are still here, still alive.
Tulsa, be forewarned.
Clemson has rediscovered its joy.
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